Courtesy Sonia Reyes
Life was speeding by alarmingly fast for Sonia Reyes, a 36-year-old mother who worked long hours at a job she loved. Unconcerned with her health, she admits she was overweight, smoked, and was living a high-stress lifestyle. “I was very happy with my life. I didn’t care that I was heavy,” Sonia told Reader’s Digest. The health risks associated with this lifestyle weren’t on her radar at the time. There were no warning signs that her life was about to take a devastating turn. As she reflected, “I was getting headaches often, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing felt different. I thought it was normal.”
Little did Reyes know that on a Super Bowl weekend filled with fun outings with her daughter, she would come face-to-face with her own mortality. “I took my five-year-old daughter to the movies. We arrived home around midnight and I went to bed. I don’t remember waking up. I know that my roommate found me the next day,” she recalled.
Strokes are the second leading cause of death worldwide, and nearly a quarter of all stroke victims are younger than 65, a fact that contradicts the commonly held belief that strokes affect only the elderly. In fact, strokes among young adults is on the rise. In the U.S., acute ischemic stroke hospitalizations increased by almost 44% in adults ages 25 to 44, between 2000 and 2010, according to findings from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Bruce Rubin, MD, a neurologist at the Design Neuroscience Center in Florida, has seen many cases of younger stroke victims. “We often see strokes in young people due to trauma and drug overdose,” he told Reader’s Digest. For several of those patients, we never find the cause, though many have a hypercoagulable syndrome, where they are more likely to form blood clots. This is especially true in women who take birth control pills and smoke. Most of these issues have no warning signs.”
After she was taken to a hospital for treatment, the reality of her situation began to sink in. Reyes realized she had a long road to recovery ahead of her. “My first thought was that I had to get better for my daughter,” she says. “I didn’t care about how serious a stroke was. I just wanted to get better for her, and to get out of that wheelchair.”
The stroke Reyes experienced stole her ability to communicate, which only added to her frustration during recovery. “One of the hardest parts was that I couldn’t speak afterward,” she said. “I couldn’t communicate with my family. I had to learn English again. I would hear myself speaking in my head but everything was coming out garbled.” The stroke affected more than her speech, and she struggled to regain use of other functions, such as mobility on the right side of her body. “I lost a lot of weight,” Reyes explained, “because I couldn’t eat normal food—my body’s reaction was to try to swallow my tongue. On the plus side, the weight loss helped me get better. For the first six to seven months, I did daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Speech therapy helped immensely. I’m learning to speak Spanish again.”
To help with her movement and spasticity issues, Reyes receives botulinum toxin treatments (such as Xeomin) to loosen the muscles in her upper limbs, which developed stiffness and and spasticity as a side effect of the stroke. If you’re thinking, “Isn’t that the stuff dermatologists inject into foreheads to smooth winkles?” the answer is yes, it’s the same prescription medication. Only here it’s injected into the upper limb muscles to keep them relaxed, instead of the facial muscles.
Even with treatment, the effects of Reyes’ stroke remain with her today, though she’s hopeful for full recovery in time. “I’m still not 100 percent back to myself,” she says. “Considering that I was young when it happened, I can’t imagine what older people must go through. It’s so hard to do the simplest things—like brushing your teeth—when you’re recovering.”
Among other lasting effects, Reyes says the stroke has affected her memory. “My brain is not the same. I don’t have the ability to retain a lot of information. If you tell me something right now, I may forget in a couple of hours, then remember again—it’s still difficult.” Although she still struggles with her symptoms, she prefers to focus on the positives that came out of the experience, saying, “It has affected me in good ways too. I think the stroke was God’s way of saying ‘slow down and smell the roses.’ I was forgetting about all the things that are also important, like my child. I was working all the time and was consumed in that. I still work part-time, and I enjoy it. But I’m glad that I have more time to spend with family. It takes a village to raise a child—and I have a good village behind me. My faith in God has been renewed, and that’s what helped me the most.”